Russia Must Celebrate

Daniel Brooks

In 1978 I worked as head of the translation office, in Rome, Italy at the Hebrew Immigration Office (HIAS). Our job was to translate documents for Soviet Jewish emigres moving to the US and other countries. I had a team of emigres working for me as translators. They came from all over the Soviet Union and brought their Soviet, Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian cultures with them. Each one arrived in Rome having left their lives in the Soviet Union behind them, an event of a lifetime.  The arrival and departure of friends and relatives were always celebrated. The parties in our office were relentless. 

I had a supervisor at HIAS named Karen who was determined to impose discipline. She felt the Soviet emigres in our office should prepare for toiling at honest labor in the capitalist world by behaving in a proper manner. After a week on the job, she was led one afternoon to a table covered with all kinds of food, tea and cognac. Karen was horrified. She felt that celebrating the departure of David Semyonovich to the land of milk and honey in Brighton Beach should by no means be celebrated at 3 in the afternoon and forbade such gatherings. My team of translators had dealt with such supervisors before.  Without batting an eye, everyone congenially removed the food and cognac. Time for plan B. 

Every office has an organizer of events. At HIAS, ours was a smooth-talking Odessan, in his 50’s, named Alexander. About a week later he sidled into Karen with a plate of cake. He asked Karen to wish Simon Simyonovich and his wife well on their journey to Brooklyn. Karen of course said yes; cake was given to everyone. After that, increasingly elaborate going away parties followed. Karen gave up. The celebrations were constant and Karen joined right in.   

I later worked as a translator at the US Embassy construction project in Moscow from 1980-1984.  We found that handing out gifts to our workers, such as a vodka, helped the work flow. However, something was missing. One of our men was a redheaded Ukrainian welder who could only have been named Red (ryzhy). One day Red took me into an empty basement. He had laid out a spread of mandarin oranges, rare in those days, a plate with a few pieces of thinly sliced white fat and vodka. It was Red’s birthday. I downed the freezing cold vodka and quickly ate the fat. It was sala, salted pork fat with garlic and pepper added to it. Red ate his salawith reverence and I told him it was the best piece of salted pork fat I’d ever had. Red laid out two facts. In Russia, the giver of vodka is expected to drink it with the receiver. Secondly, the head plumber was having a birthday the following week. Now I understood.  

We had our gatherings with up to 40 men at the construction site on Fridays in the late afternoon but not on payday. Otherwise, the team might spend all their wages by the next day. At our events, everyone would be provided with something to drink and eat. Someone would make a solemn toast. After that, we all clinked glasses with each other, forty glasses clinking forty other glasses. It was critical to clink each glass and provide a meaningful look to everyone. Then, down the hatch. 

While the venue and menu might differ in an office and on a construction site, the tradition is the same. A lot of time is spent standing with a drink in hand, held up towards someone making a speech. A few jokes. Glasses are clinked. The collective is as one. 

Office parties have mushroomed into big business in Moscow and much of Russia. Most offices have a New Year’s party, organized by companies who set everything up and provide a tamada, or toastmaster. These big yearly parties, called kooperativy, follow a time-honored ritual. 

Usually, these events are built around a theme such as rock music, glamour or at one party I went to, gangsters. Everyone is urged to dress up in the spirit of the theme. Once the evening starts, the toastmaster, who has a microphone, tells everyone loudly what a wonderful collective they have at company X.  After sitting down at several tables and eating a large quantity of bland food, a competition is held, usually a quiz about music, films or popular culture.  A winning table is announced. Toasts are made, and glasses are clinked. At some point, someone gets up and performs, perhaps from the logistics department. It is either planned or spontaneous. These performances are highly entertaining, especially after several drinks. The women dress in their finest clothing and make themselves gorgeous. A woman who sat unnoticed all year in the quality control department turns out to be a spectacular beauty, dressed as a gangster. A normally demure accountant has an immaculate dress with a slit in it, going up her right leg, impossible to ignore. A man in the finance department turns out to be a fantastic dancer. The men are outshone by the women. Toasts are made to the women in the collective by the men who stand up while the women sit. When toasting the women, the men’s drinks go straight down the hatch. After that the music starts. Everyone begins dancing. People normally don’t dance together in pairs. Everyone simply dances, perhaps in a circle, for the rest of the evening. At the office party I went to recently, I danced off to one side for a few songs, perfecting my moves to an audience of no one. While the dancing is going on, flash mob toasts take place at the dinner tables, with clinking glasses.  The collective goes home fat and happy. 

One year, in the 2000’s while the Russian market was booming, and the Ruble was rock steady, I suggested we have a summer party at a coffee company I was managing. My idea was to have food, a DJ and just dance. My HR manager took over and when we finally had the event, it had grown into a monster. We had Brazilian dancers, a tent, elaborate costumes, a live band and a DJ.  Plenty of team building took place. That, at least, is how I justified in my budget, swallowing hard as the claim was made. 

At office parties in Moscow, a spark might be lit. It can happen that a foreign manager ends up in Russia for a very long time, married to someone he met at a New Year’s party. Just a word to the wise.  

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 26 December 2018